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Hereward the Wake

Hereward the Wake, (c. 1035 — death date unkown) known in his own times as Hereward the Outlaw or Hereward the Exile, was an 11th century Anglo Saxon leader in the Kingdom of England who led resistance to the Norman Conquest. According to legend, Hereward's base was the Isle of Ely and he roamed the Fens that surround what is now Lincolnshire, leading popular opposition to William I of England. The title the Wake was popularly assigned to him many years after his death and is believed to mean the watchful. Myth has it that Hereward first acquired this tag after he, with the help of his servant Martin Lightfoot, foiled an assassination attempt on himself by a group of knights whilst out hunting with them; they had grown jealous of his popularity. Some believe the name was given to him by the Wake family, the Norman landowners who gained Hereward's land after his death, in order to imply a family connection and therefore legitimise their claim to the lands. 'Hereward' is composed of Old English roots here, army, and weard, guard, and is cognate with Old High German 'Heriwart' and modern German 'Heerwart'.

Life and legend

Hereward's birth is conventionally dated as 1035/6 because the Gesta Herewardi indicates that he was first exiled in 1054 at the age of 18. However, since the account in the Gesta of the early part of his exile (in Northumberland, Scotland, Cornwall and Ireland) appears to be largely fictitious, it is hard to know if we can trust this. Peter Rex, in his 2005 biography of Hereward, points out that the campaigns he is supposed to have fought on in Flanders seem to have begun around 1063, and suggests that Hereward in fact went straight to Flanders - meaning that, if he was 18 at the time of his exile, he was born in 1044/5.

Partly because of the sketchiness of evidence for his existence, his life has become a magnet for speculators and amateur scholars. The earliest references to his parentage make him the son of Edith and Leofric of Bourne. Alternatively, it has also been argued that Leofric, Earl of Mercia and his wife Lady Godiva were Hereward's real parents. There is no evidence for this - and Abbot Brand of Peterborough, stated to have been Hereward's uncle, does not appear to have been related to either Leofric or Godiva. Some modern research suggests him to have been Anglo-Danish with a Danish father, Asketil: since Brand is also a Danish name it makes sense that the Abbot may have been Asketil's brother.

His place of birth is supposed to be in or near Bourne in Lincolnshire. It is claimed that he was a tenant of Peterborough Abbey, from there he held lands in the parishes of Witham on the Hill and Barholm with Stow in the south-western corner of Lincolnshire, and of Croyland Abbey at Crowland, eight miles east of Market Deeping in the neighbouring fenland. In those times it used to be a boggy and marshy area. Since the holdings of abbeys could be widely dispersed across parishes, the precise location of his personal holdings are uncertain, but were certainly somewhere in south Lincolnshire.

It is thought that he had already rebelled against Edward the Confessor before 1066, whom he saw as already aligning England with the Normans, and that he was declared an outlaw as a result. It has been suggested that, at the time of the Norman invasion of England, he was in exile in Europe, working as a successful mercenary for the Count of Flanders, Baldwin V, and that he then returned to England.

In 1069 or 1070 the Danish king Swein Estrithson sent a small army to try to establish a camp on the Isle of Ely. They were joined by many, including Hereward. His first act was to storm and sack Peterborough Abbey in 1070, in company with local men and Swein's Danes. His justification is said to have been that he wished to save the Abbey's treasures and relics from the Normans.

In 1071 he and many others made a desperate stand on the Isle of Ely against the Conqueror's rule. Some say that the Normans made a frontal assault, aided by a huge mile-long timber causeway, but that this sank under the weight of armour and horses. It is said that the Normans, probably led by one of William's knights named Belasius (Belsar), then bribed the monks of the island to reveal a safe route across the marshes, resulting in Ely's capture. Hereward is said to have escaped with some of his followers into the wild fenland, and to have continued his resistance.

Details of Hereward's life after the fall of Ely are as inconclusive as most of his life prior to the siege. The 15th century chronicle, Gesta Herewardi, by Ingulf of Croyland, says Hereward was eventually pardoned by William and lived the rest of his life in relative peace. Geoffrey Gaimar, in his Estoire des Angleis puts a slightly different slant on things, he suggests that after his pardon he moved to France where he was murdered by a group of Normans. The other possibility is Hereward received no such pardon and went into exile never to be heard from again, as this was the fate of a lot of prominent English men after the Conquest it is a distinct possibility.

Hereward in popular culture

  • Some of the legends about Hereward were incorporated into later legends about Robin Hood.
  • Charles Kingsley's novel, Hereward, of 1865 is a highly-romanticised account of Hereward's exploits, and makes him the son of Earl Leofric of Mercia.
  • Jack Trevor Story wrote a long dramatised life of Hereward for one of Tom Boardman's boys' annuals.
  • The BBC made a 16-episode TV series in 1965 entitled Hereward the Wake, based on Kingsley's novel. Hereward was portrayed by actor Alfred Lynch.
  • Cold Heart, Cruel Hand: A novel of Hereward the Wake (2004) is a novel by Laurence J Brown.
  • An Endless Exile (2004), by Mary Lancaster, is a historical novel based on Hereward's life.
  • The rock band Pink Floyd referred to Hereward in the track "Let There Be More Light" (1968); in which a psychedelic vision at Mildenhall reveals 'The living soul of Hereward the Wake'. He also appears in the lyrics of the 1968 track Darkness by Van der Graaf Generator. He is also the subject of the track "Rebel of the Marshlands" by rock band Forefather, in their 2005 album Ours is the Kingdom.
  • Hereward the Wake gives his name to the Peterborough radio station Hereward FM.
  • BR standard class 7 (otherwise known as the "Britannia Class") locomotive No 70037 carried the name "Hereward the Wake".
  • There is a long-distance footpath through the Cambridgeshire fenland from Peterborough to Ely, called the Hereward Way.
  • Hampstead has a preparatory school for boys called Hereward House School.
  • "Hereward" is the motto of No. 2 Squadron RAF. They are based at RAF Marham in Norfolk and their crest contains a Wake knot.

Alfred Lynch in the BBC TV series Hereward the Wake (1965), based on the book Hereward by Charles Kingsley

  • Brian Blessed portrayed Hereward in the TV drama Blood Royal: William the Conqueror (1990).

See also



  • The English Resistance: The Underground War Against the Normans, Peter Rex, ISBN 0-7524-2827-6, chapters 8, 9 and 10 contains new data on his family.
  • Hereward together with De Gestis Herwardi Saxonis, (1982), T. A. Bevis, Pub. Westrydale Press, ISBN 0-901680-16-8.


  • Hereward: Sons of the White Dragon, by Marcus Pitcaithly, pub. 2008. ISBN 978-0-9556864-0-5.
  • An Endless Exile, by Mary Lancaster, 2004. Paperback ISBN 1-84319-272-1, eBook ISBN 1-84319-125-3
  • "The Last Englishman: The Story of Hereward the Wake", by Hebe Weenolsen, pub. 1952
  • Man With a Sword, by Henry Treece, 1962.
  • "Cold Heart, Cruel Hand: A Novel Of Hereward The Wake and The Fen Rebellion of 1070-1071" by Laurence J. Brown, pub. 2004
  • "Brainbiter: The Saga of Hereward the Wake" by Jack Ogden, pub. 2007
  • "The Legend of Hereward the Wake" by Mike Ripley, pub. 2007
  • Hereward the Wake, by Charles Kingsley (see below for text from Project Guttenburg).

External links

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